Packages and the spring honey crop

Yesterday we were hiving a few packages of bees, freshly imported from New Zealand.  Thank you Stan and Cheryl at the Flying Dutchman in Nanaimo for making these packages available at this time of the year.  They have become an important resource in our planning for producing a honey crop.

Spring packages have a reputation, which I feel is somewhat undeserved.  When we first started with bees back in 2011, starting with a package was our only option, it had been a devastating loss winter and there were no nucs available locally.  We hived packages on April 19th, and by mid June we were rapidly learning about swarms.  In hindsight, after learning a lot more about flows, and managing bees, I’m not sure we could have prevented those swarms as new beekeepers wanting at least a small honey harvest, with no resources to work with in the form of drawn comb.  We had neither the experience nor the resources to properly manage our bee colonies.

Today, my wife does get questioned on social media, why would we use imported packages that arrive in February, instead of using locally produced stock available as nucs later in the season to expand our stock of bees for this year.  There is no correct answer to that question, it really depends on your goals and objectives in keeping bees.  We keep bees as livestock, and our objective is to harvest a honey crop.  We target the spring flow for that crop, which runs roughly middle of May thru till the middle of June.  So lets do a little bee math.

Spring nucs typically become available in our area by the 4th week of April, and will arrive in the form of a 4 frame nuc, bursting with bees, 2+ frames are bood in all stages of development.  I got a few last year from Sol at Jinglepot Apiaries in Nanaimo, and they were superb.  It’s a fully fledged small colony, which needs to be put into larger equipment right away to give them room to grow.  If I put those bees into a set of 10 frame equipment, then over the next brood cycle (3 weeks) the population will double, and they will essentially fill a single deep.  Our target wintering configuration is a double deep, so if I add another deep to the stack and let them continue to grow, it’ll take roughly 4 more weeks for them to fill that box with bees.  The bee population will be ‘fully grown’ into our desired hive size by the middle of June.  But reference our honey flow, which runs from the middle of May to the middle of June, this colony will be using the spring flow to build up, and wont produce much in the way of surplus honey.  This is fine if our target flow comes later in the season, the colony will be just about right for blackberries, and should be in good shape for the fireweed flow.  BUT, here at Rozehaven, we dont target blackberries because our experience of the last few years, blackberries are a fickle flow which does not produce a surplus for us most years.  We do target fireweed with a small number of hives, but our operation isn’t big enough to justify building a bear proof bee yard out in a fireweed patch just for our own use, so we participate in a community club yard where we can place 4 to 6 hives.  So, if we look at what a spring nuc gives me, we end up with a fully developed colony right about the time our target flow is tapering off, and no surplus for sale.  That colony will bring with it all the management time and expense of preparing a hive for winter, and the associated wintering risk.

Now lets look at the math for an early package at the end of February.  This math assumes one has drawn comb on which to hive the package, Stan and Cheryl will not sell you a package at this time of year if you dont have comb to put them on.  We start the package on drawn comb, and they go right to work on that comb.  In 3 and a half weeks, we’ll start seeing brood emerge, so this unit will be like a nuc at that point, brood in all stages, but it happens a month earlier than when nucs are available.  Another brood cycle later, they will be covering 8 frames in the box, and we are placing a second box on the stack by mid April.  By first or second week of May, this unit will be covering most of the frames in the second box, and ready for a honey super, just in time for our spring flow.  So what we get from the package, 2 supers of honey, then we will have all the management time and expense of preparing a hive for winter, and the associated wintering risk.

For our goals of producing honey on the spring flow, the spring package makes economic sense, but only enough packages that we can provide them with a full comb inventory.  Without that inventory of drawn comb to build the package population rapidly, it will not reach our goals.  I have to emphasize this point a bit, an early package is only useful for repopulating an existing inventory of drawn comb.

We raise our own queens during the spring flow.  If I was bound and determined to have ‘local survivor’ genetics in all of our colonies, I can opt to re-queen the colonies we built up from the NZ imports using those queens, and by the time winter rolls around, we’ll have ‘local stock’ in all of the colonies.  If one is in a different part of the country, that may well be a good strategy, but we are on the west coast, a mild wet coastal climate in a mountainous region.  The bees we get in the spring packages come from New Zealand, a mild wet coastal climate in a mountainous region.  Obviously the folks making those packages are doing something right in terms of keeping bees, they have enough surplus to be constantly providing the Canadian market with thousands of packages every spring.  Granted, they are shaking packages in the fall on their seasons, but that’s good for us, our packages have the first round of those highly desireable winter bees.  They are not importing our fall surplus to become the ‘spring packages’ in New Zealand, so they must be doing something right down there.

I have two colonies on stands in the back which have a queen that’s wintered twice, she’s marked, and I know she has been in that colony now for two winters.  I will graft from those two, and I will re-queen the majority of our colonies with cells from those grafts, but I will only re-queen half of the colonies we started from packages yesterday.  The other half will get a chance to show us how well a New Zealand queen can perform for us, both over the summer, and into the follow on winter.  My expectation is, we’ll see little / no difference between the imports and the local stock.  We brought in 3 packages last spring, I re-queened two of them over the summer.  The third is still in a box on the stands out back, and in all honesty, that one is our strongest hive this spring, there were 8 frames of bees in the top box in February.

Our goal is to produce a marketable honey crop from the spring flow.  In order to do that, we have to make maximum use of the resources we have, and the most valuable resource for spring buildup is drawn comb.  This spring we have a significant surplus of drawn brood comb available.  We bought enough packages to make use of all the surplus drawn brood comb we have.  One package placed into boxes of mostly drawn comb at this time of year, will translate into a couple supers of honey over the spring flow if we manage them correctly between now and the end of June.  It’s true, we would be far better off if we had surviving colonies on all that comb, but, that’s not our reality this year.  I have never claimed to be an expert beekeeper, and serious mistakes were made last summer, which resulted in a number of lost colonies that died out in August from an exploding varroa population.  We learned a valuable lesson, and paid the price for that lesson when I wrote a cheque yesterday to cover the cost of 9 packages.

If your overall goals in keeping bees hedge toward the altruistic ideals, the spring package imports probably dont fit with your beekeeping style and objectives.  But if your goals are financial, and based on honey from the spring flow, the February package is a valuable tool in the toolbox.